by Sean Mulready
Every fall, skiers start their snow vigils long before the leaves have fallen.
They place their trust in long range forecasts, dusty almanacs and even fuzzy bugs to gain some insight into how snowy the winter might be. Thom Perkins understands that fascination but he thinks people are missing the point. The longtime Executive Director of the Jackson Ski Touring Foundation loves snow as much as anyone but, he feels, in the ski industry it's not about flakes. It's about dirt, rocks, grass, trees and views. It's the terrain that makes alpine and Nordic skiing possible.
"Without the trails, we're all dead in the water," he says and the work on those trails goes on all the time, not just when the snow falls.
That's why Perkins, in his 38 years at the Jackson New Hampshire foundation has put in thousands of hours working to preserve, improve and expand the 125 kilometer system which the foundation took over in 1972.
At that time, most of the trails were held by local businesses like the Wildcat Tavern or the Dana Place Inn. They decided to give up their control of the trails even as they kept their businesses and the land on which the trails were built. Today, most of the 150 K trail system is still on privately held land with about 75 landowners maintaining ownership of parcels large and small that comprise one of the East's best known Nordic centers. Despite the constant ownership, not everything has remained the same.
|Jackson Ski Touring Foundation Trail Map
"We have evolved the trail system," said Perkins. "We have lost trails and we have gained trails. The Ellis River Trail used to be a single trail from Jackson to Dana Place. Now almost half of it is in two one-way loops."
That redesign came about because of enormous popularity of the Ellis River Trail. JSTF staff wanted to find a way to make skiing on such a crowded trail a more pleasant experience for all levels of skiers.
"If you have a two way trail and you've got 3,000 people on the trail, you're going to see 1,500 people," explained Perkins...and that doesn't include those you might pass or who might pass you. "If you're on a one way trail, you're only going to see the ones you pass or who pass you."
They focus on three things for trail development; making the trails easier to groom, cheaper to maintain and much more pleasurable to ski.
"Overlying that is the accommodation of climate change because we realize that the winters are getting warmer," said Perkins. He has seen it during his own career in Jackson.
He cited two river crossings on the Ellis River Trail, one behind the old Jack Frost Shop and another all the way up to Dana Place as examples. In those early years, once the river had frozen over, skiers would be able to ski across the ice in those two spots for all but about 10 days each season.
"Now, you can only ski across them for 10 days a year." he said.
That dramatic change has force the foundation to focus on developing access to trails on higher terrain and explains why Perkins' prize accomplishment this year isn't a new trail or a redesign of an old one. It's a parking lot for 32 cars near the end of Carter Notch Road. The gravel topped lot will give skiers easier access to one of the system's best early and late season trail systems around Prospect Farm. It's over 1,000 feet above the trails at the shop and that can make for a huge difference in conditions.
"We've had a foot and a half to two feet of snow up there and had zero snow in the village," said Perkins. "That's our lifeboat area because it's a high elevation plateau."
The parking lot cost $14,500 and took only a few weeks to build but the land on which it is located was the object of a negotiation that took over three decades to conclude. Perkins targeted that land when he first came on board at JSTF but the landowner never gave permission for the parking lot. That owner's son eventually took control of the property and, after still more negotiations, JSTF got permission to build the lot.
"That's the thing that all land negotiation takes," explained Perkins. "â€¦ a lot of patience."
Over the last decade or so, he has been relying heavily on patience as he takes a new approach to the agreements which have allowed the foundation to maintain and use their trails for the last four decades. Instead of relying upon the landowner's permission, which may or may not be renewed if the land changes ownership, he has been gradually shifting the agreements to deeded easements so that the trail will survive even if ownership changes. "We've currently got about 15 to 20 percent of our landowners with deeded easements and we're continuing that program."
As with everything else, it will take time.
"It's their land. We're using it for free," he explained.
Although the use might be free, the preparation of that land to make it suitable for skiing or snowshoeing is anything but free. Perkins estimated that trail construction today costs between $25,000 and $50,000 per kilometer.
On top of that, the ever warming winter weather patterns have forced JSTF to expend money to develop better stream crossings. Recently, the foundation purchased a $12,000 portable bridge to cover a stream near the Eagle Mountain House on Carter Notch Road that used to freeze solidly throughout the season. Now the bridge can be dropped in place once the season begins and can be removed when the spring thaw might otherwise carry it away downstream.
That kind of careful planning can keep whole sections of trails open for the public to enjoy. The grooming can make all those trails still more enjoyable and, obviously, the snow itself makes or breaks each season and even each outing. However, for Perkins, he feels strongly that even in a warming climate you can still have great snow seasons. Without the terrain, though, there won't be anyplace to enjoy nature's white gold.
"No matter what you say," Perkins repeated, "It's all about the land."